How a more inclusive workplace could stem ‘The Great Resignation’

In a recent report, two Wharton School professors outline some key points organizations can take to affect change and meaningfully prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

People on conveyor belt moving towards an exit sign.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, employers and employees pivoted their operations to meet new challenges. Droves of workers have left their jobs over the past year, an exodus that has been dubbed “The Great Resignation.”

While there are countless reasons behind the rising discontent among employees, Stephanie Creary, an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School, says there is one important action that companies can take to stem the unemployment tide: Create a more fair, inclusive, and equitable workplace.

Creary and Nancy Rothbard, deputy dean and the David Pottruck Professor of Management at Wharton, recently co-authored the report, “Improving Workplace Culture Through Evidence-based Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practices.” In it, they offer guidance on how firms can discover their shortcomings and fill in the gaps between what they say and actually do with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“The goal was to find actionable processes that help people in organizations,” Rothbard says. “A lot of my research in the diversity space is documenting what the issues are, but this is really focused on solutions.”

Organizations that are creating a people-first strategy are future-focused, Creary says, which means being open to new ways of meeting talent, creating a meaningful culture, and considering different types of workplace models.

“One of the things that becomes increasingly important to understand is that creating more inclusive, equitable, and diverse workplaces is an aspiration for many organizations,” Creary says. “And what organizations often lack insight into are the discrete practices that they should be putting in place at the organization level in order to reach that more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace.”

Here, Creary outlines several key areas from the report and the broader research project on which the report is based that employers should consider today and in the future.

Put an emphasis on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

Our interviews with diversity leaders revealed that in places such as the U.S., the earliest precursors to diversity, equity, and inclusion practices were Equal Employment Opportunity practices, which were put in place after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equity has long been embedded as a concept in many corporate practices, but it has been associated with legal compliance with governmental regulations. That has been how many organizations have thought about equity since the 1960s.

Increasingly, over the past 18 months, equity has started to mean ensuring that people who are historically marginalized have the opportunities to contribute to an organization, and to be considered for positions for which they perhaps had been overlooked—not because of performance issues, but because organizations didn’t necessarily value what people from historically marginalized groups had to offer. And so that’s why organizations are now placing emphasis on equity, knowing that equity initiatives might include pay equity, but it is also about equity in terms of opportunity.

When we start to think about culture change, the word inclusion becomes increasingly important because culture change is also about individual behavior. Inclusion is about what we need to do differently as an organization, as managers, as people who work in the same organization to change the ways in which we are engaging and helping people to access the important sets of experiences that are going to help drive our organization forward.

While it is important to emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is also important to define those terms for people and help them to understand what each of these concepts adds beyond the others. If we want to move beyond the abstract understanding of DEI and espousal of DEI as an organization value, it is important for people to have an example of what “great DEI” looks like in practice and how DEI is relevant for them at work.

Assign meaningful work

Meaningful work helps employees feel their skills and expertise are respected. Outside of the context of diversity, equity, inclusion, our research suggests that we all want to feel like our work matters.

For some of us, that means, “I want to feel like my work matters to my boss.” But some other people may be more interested in, “I want my work to make an impact on the broader organization,” or “I want to see that my work is helping to move this organization closer toward our goals.” For others, it’s, “I want to see that my work is helping us to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.”

When we consider the experiences of people who are historically underrepresented, what the data often shows is that they’re being underutilized at work as compared to people who are in the majority. That’s the caveat, while everyone wants meaningful work, sometimes achieving that is harder for people who are underrepresented.

Give constructive feedback

There are two things to keep in mind here. One is that, in the initial qualitative study that we conducted as part of this larger research project, we learned that in many organizations today there’s an opportunity to help all managers develop the skill sets to give everyone more constructive feedback. So, this is a developmental opportunity in all organizations. But when we look at the context of DEI, what other research studies suggest is that people who are underrepresented are less likely to get constructive feedback that is performance oriented. This means that the feedback people from underrepresented groups tend to receive tends to comment on things that are culturally biased and aren’t going to help them perform better, like their clothing, hairstyles, tone or volume of voice, facial expressions, and personality.

The second thing is it becomes important to understand that this conversation about feedback can turn into one that suggests that people who are underrepresented may be underrepresented because they may not be performing at the same level as those who are not underrepresented. This is not necessarily true based on our research. What the data often suggest is that, in many cases, people from underrepresented groups often lack access to developmental relationships with people who will ensure that their accomplishments will be recognized, such as mentors and sponsors or advocates.

Build strong partnerships

It is important for the diversity office and organizational leaders to build strong partnerships with other people, such as middle managers, whose efforts are needed to build diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. That is, it is important that diversity work is being undertaken by many different groups of people in the organization, not just those who work in the diversity office. Middle managers who may feel less confident about doing diversity work may need to partner with others on their team to effectively create a team environment in which gains are being made related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Invest in professional growth opportunities

Many of us forget that we need to develop strong relationships with other people in our organization who have the capacity to not only help us see what our opportunities for professional growth might be, but also to help us access them. What we learned from our research is that being able to identify and develop relationships with mentors and sponsors is really important as an investment in one’s own professional growth. Yet, as a manager, being able to help employees or people on your team understand that they need to start building mentoring and sponsorship relationships with other people is important as well.

The reality is that, at some level, so many people are smart, capable, and working hard at work. And so “hard work” and “performance” are not always the determining factors in who gains access to career opportunities in organizations. What can be the determining factor outside of hard work and performance is whether there is a senior person in your organization who will sponsor or advocate for you when decisions are being made about career opportunities. Having an advocate is like getting a recommendation from someone who is credible who will also provide additional context and evidence to support that you are qualified for the opportunity or job. However, sometimes people seek mentoring and sponsorship a little bit awkwardly, where they run up to somebody and they say, “Will you be my mentor/sponsor?” That’s not how it works. Mentoring and sponsorship relationships grow over time with repeated and mutually satisfying interactions.

Be transparent about hiring policies

Our interviews with diversity leaders revealed that many organizations support referral-based hiring. Referral-based hiring is important, because it helps people who are hiring to understand that there is somebody in this organization who believes that the candidate’s values are aligned with the organizations and that the candidate may add value to the organization. But what is often hidden to employees and the general public is how many of the people who are being hired are coming through referrals, relative to how many people who don’t know anybody in the organization are getting hired.

The existing research on this topic says that the referral process tends not to yield a diverse set of job candidates, particularly candidates who are underrepresented. So relying on referral-based hiring for open positions can be one potential factor in explaining why a diverse set of candidates is not being recruited or hired.

Encourage team members to speak up, even if they have dissenting opinions

We also learned that diversity doesn’t work in the way most organizations would like it to if no one’s saying anything different. So, how can organizations create a culture of safety, where managers tell employees, “You can say something different, and my commitment is for you not to feel like you are going to be penalized by me or your other team members for expressing what you’ve expressed.” Our research reveals that is something that the manager has to say and do and reinforce regularly, so people believe it. Because unless the manager states that their goal is to make it safe for employees to express their perspectives, even if those perspectives stand out as being different from the norm, people aren’t going to speak up in ways that go against the status quo. That the space is “safe” for expressing different perspectives is something that needs to be stated and reinforced, and employees need to see that they are not getting penalized or punished in any way for saying something that is different from the norm.

Reinforce a no-tolerance policy for disrespectful behavior

Another key insight from our research was that in order to create workplaces that are free from harassment and discrimination, is important that organizations not only create corporate policies that communicate no-tolerance for disrespectful behavior, but to also define what respect is and how that should show up at work. This means that people need to understand what respect looks like in terms of how they engage with one another and the types of disrespectful behavior that won’t be tolerated.

Take ownership for communicating DEI initiatives

Often times, DEI strategies and the subsequent initiatives that are created, are created at the top of organizations by senior leaders and by the diversity office. They’re not always fully communicated with the same level of depth to people lower in the organization, such as people managers, or frontline employees. Our research suggests that what is important is the same care and attention that it has taken to develop DEI strategies and initiatives needs to be translated to middle managers, who need to translate what they and the organization are doing to accomplish DEI goals and how much progress they are making. This means that it is important for organizations and managers to effectively communicate how they are going to make DEI-related progress to people on the front lines, which can help people to see that DEI work is not just something the organization says they are doing, that organizations and managers actually have a plan for making progress on and achieving DEI goals.